Anne Hilborn

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In my blog I ramble on about various aspects of cheetahs and doing fieldwork that interest me. There is the occasional tangent about academia, but mostly it is cheetah pictures.

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 17 2016 11:35PM

September 2014

September will go down as the month where I finally managed to do the fieldwork as I planned it oh so many months ago. The idea that I came up with in my innocence was that I’d follow the same cheetah for 5 days in a row. This rested on a number of assumptions that turned out to be a wee bit false. Namely that cheetahs didn’t move at night and at dawn would be sitting in where I had left them at dusk. Not so, and I struggled mightily to even find the same cheetah 2 days running. I struggled to the point where I reconsidered my plan of attack and even went back and read some scientific papers to see if just following a cheetah for a day instead of multiple days would still allow me to accomplish the objectives of my PhD (It will...fingers crossed). So while I made an attempt to find the previous day’s cheetah again, usually I followed a different one every day. However this changed the day I found a mother and her 3 cubs for 6 glorious days in a row. She is a rarely seen female, and we hadn’t seen her seven month old cubs before. She spent the 6 days in a fairly small area, hunkering down and not moving for the night and also importantly, hunting a lot. She had 3 cubs to feed, which meant in 6 days she killed 5 times. None of this sleeping-off-a-full-belly- for-two-days rigmarole I had come to expect from single cheetahs. It was a glorious richness of data, and I never wanted it to end. However real life of office work intruded and the day after she was nowhere to be found. I named her Wendi after my sister in law who had recently visited.

Wendi has a female and two male cubs. All of them seemed to take special delight in trying to get her to play with them by the means of face patting, neck biting and sudden attacks when she was trying to sleep. I couldn’t help but feel sympathetic when she would suddenly retaliate with the nip to the hindquarters or crotch.

There is only so much a mother can take before she goes for the disciplinary crotch bite

Wendi brought down a gazelle late in Day 4 and it was getting on towards sunset before the cubs had had their fill of eating and playing with the carcass. It was a pregnant gazelle and the cubs played tug of war with the head of the fetus for an unnecessarily long time.

Wendi led her cubs a short distance away, but then spotted a hyena heading for the remains of the carcass. Hyenas can be deadly to cheetah cubs, so like a conscientious mother, she took them at a fast clip in the other direction. However in the other direction was a herd of about 40 elephants. This lead to an utterly magical Serengeti moment of 4 cheetahs walking in the gorgeous light very near elephants, everyone ignoring everyone else. I felt incredibly lucky to witness it.

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 17 2016 11:21PM

August 2014

So leaving behind the story of Asti, let's move on to an appreciation of a young female named Strudel. She has been hanging around a beautiful area known as Sopa Valley, a small valley tucked away to the west of Seronera. It is bounded by wooded hills, but the valley is fairly open with big spreading acacias and areas of long grass plains. There aren’t many roads so it isn’t swarming with cars, and the only drawback is one or two too many tsetse flies. It is a very pleasant place to spend the day, and if you are with a slightly pissed off looking cheetah who is hunting, it is even better.

Strudel possess a very sweet face that for some reason is always set is a pissed off expression. It's as if her face really did freeze like that when she was young. In fact it is so marked that I was able to recognize her because of it. I would approach a random cheetah, see that it was a female...think to myself 'oh what a sweetie!' then notice the narrowed eyes and laid back ears and say 'Aha, I bet that is Strudel'.

Strudel- Master of looking unamused

One of the days I followed her she went after a male Thomson’s gazelle. I really thought she had him, but he managed to escape. This did not seem to improve her mood.

A gazelle innocently walks along
A gazelle innocently walks along

Wait...Is that a cheetah butt in the grass?
Wait...Is that a cheetah butt in the grass?

And they're off!

Cheetahs are faster, but gazelles can out maneuver them with quick changes in direction

She gets so close!

But ultimately fails

And goes and sulks on a termite mound

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 17 2016 10:09PM

Late May 2014

In late May I was on a particularly choppy five day follow. By choppy I mean as usual I struggled to find the same cheetah for two days in a row. Back then I was still full of confidence that I could make this 5 day follow thing work, so I kept looking. Day 1 I spent with an old female named Courtney. She did bugger all, slept all day. This lack of activity made me hope that she would hunt the next day. However could I find her again on Day 2? Of course not. After driving and looking all morning, I parked in the shade and sulked for a bit before deciding to give up on Courtney and head to another area called Hidden Valley. The morning of Day 3 I found Asti and her 5 teeny tiny cubs.

It passed by the cheetahs without paying much attention, however the other hyena came up to investigate. Deciding action was needed, Asti got up and stalked stiff legged towards the hyena. It got nearer and she charged it and then kept running up towards a third hyena who turned and retreated. The second hyena was not impressed and hadn’t moved so she came back towards it growling. Asti got very close, passing right by it but there was no contact and the hyena seemed unfazed by the whole thing. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, Asti went back to her cubs and soon led them quickly across the valley and into the long grass where they would be less visible. At this point I left them to follow Almond and her big cub who were also in the area.

In official scientist speak, cubs this small are known as Cubby Wubby Wubbies. Asti is the daughter of Sauterns, and is about 4.5 years old. I estimated the cubs to be about 3 months old, so they most likely hadn’t been out of the den for much over a couple of weeks. Spending the day watching gorgeous cheetah cubs really isn’t too bad, even when you worry about them being noticed and killed by lions or hyenas. Early in the morning Asti took them across the valley floor where they were quite exposed, but soon they settled down under a tree. Cheetah cubs have such a high mortality rate (only 5% make it to independence at 18 months) that whenever I am with them I can’t help speculating about the many sad fates they will meet. These five seemed intent on maiming themselves by playing on the small acacia tree Asti was resting under.

Acacia thorns are formidable, and cheetahs are not graceful in trees, not graceful at all. Watching them awkwardly fall face first down the trunk through spiny branches was not confidence inspiring. Thankfully no one lost an eye that day, nor the next day when I found them again looking very photogenic in the morning light.

Day 5 they were still in the same general area, and I found them first thing clustered on top of a termite mound. However it was not long before danger loomed. Asti suddenly stiffened and gazed very intently towards the north, and following her gaze I saw two hyenas. Hyenas are not the chief killers of cheetah cubs (lions take that crown), but they do kill them, and a good cheetah mother will be very careful around them. Asti is a pretty good mother. She hunkered down and kept a very close eye on one of the hyenas as it approached.

It passed by the cheetahs without paying much attention, however the other hyena came up to investigate. Deciding action was needed, Asti got up and stalked stiff legged towards the hyena. It got nearer and she charged it and then kept running up towards a third hyena who turned and retreated. The second hyena was not impressed and hadn’t moved so she came back towards it growling. Asti got very close, passing right by it but there was no contact and the hyena seemed unfazed by the whole thing. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, Asti went back to her cubs and soon led them quickly across the valley and into the long grass where they would be less visible. At this point I left them to follow Almond and her big cub who were also in the area.

Asti tries to see off the hyena. Hyena is not impressed
Asti tries to see off the hyena. Hyena is not impressed

Despite valiant efforts to save her cubs that time, six weeks later she only had one cub left. We have no idea of knowing how they died but lions and hyenas are the leading causes of cheetah cub mortality

Asti with the only surviving cub
Asti with the only surviving cub

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 17 2016 09:21PM

May and June 2014

The Advent of Dennis

At the end of March Dennis Minja arrived in the Serengeti to train to be Project Manager for Cheetah Project. After a couple weeks of training he took over finding the 20 cheetahs a month for the demographic data, freeing me up to focus on my multi day follows and the collection of data for my PhD.

The first follow I tried was out on the eastern edge of the park in an beautiful area called Barafu. I found two brothers named Richard and Armitage early in the morning, and followed them as they marked their territory, took a snooze in the long grass and then sauntered towards a small kopje (rocky outcropping). Unlike mothers with cubs, male cheetahs don't have to worry too much about other predators so they have a much more nonchalant and confident way of walking. They strolled up to the kopje and were about 30m away when they noticed there was a male lion resting in the shade of a tree. One of them did a quick about face and walked away but the other stood there staring at the lion for a while until it stood up. Then deciding discretion is the better part of valor, he too turned around and walked away.


They meandered down into a dry river bed where suddenly a lost baby wildebeest appeared. 20 seconds later they had it, and I was cursing as I tried to drive over extremely rough and broken ground to get to them to collect data. A hyena got there first and I arrived just as one of the brothers was chasing it and the other kept strangling the wildebeest. These two adult male cheetahs are more than a match for a lone hyena so it plopped itself down about 30m away and gazed at them mournfully as they devoured the kill.

Richard and Armitage devour the kill while the hyena hangs in the background

A long while later they decided they were done, and waddled slowly away with enormous bellies. Only then did the hyena dive in and get the scraps.

However, it didn't get to enjoy them long, as a male lion soon came up and stole what kill was left, and the hyena resumed its mournful gaze.

. Meanwhile there were some very touching Hollywood moments as Richard and Armitage cleaned the blood off of each others’ faces in the rain.

Disappeared. I spent an hour searching and then gave up. Not a magnificent start to my multi day follows, I had expected to struggle to refind them in the morning, but not to lose them in the middle of the afternoon. However I found them again at 8 am the next morning, still looking respectably fat. Freed from the need to find food, they set their minds to the very serious business of marking their territory. Which meant going around and peeing on just about everything. Rocks, trees, grass, dead trees, the ground, and possibly by mistake, each other. It is a marvel they could hold such copious amounts of liquid, in the dry season when water is scarce, it must be a challenge to keep everything marked. They were walking slowly across a grassy valley when another young lost wildebeest came bouncing over the horizon. Now they were still fat and didn't need to eat, but no one can resist chasing a baby wildebeest. Down it went, and this time they ate very slowly and with lots of breaks for deep breathing. Having dominated many a Thanksgiving dinner myself, I could sympathize. They hadn't eaten very much at all when another baby wildebeest came over the horizon. You could almost hear the mental wheels spinning about whether it was worth chasing that one as well. Thankfully prudence won out, and they settled back into eating their kill. The time between successful hunts is one of the things I am very interested in getting, so I felt quite pleased with myself and my 1 data point.

I got another data point a week or so later when I followed an old female named Courtney for 2.5 days. Courtney is one of my favorites, she and her sister having been some of the first cheetahs I spotted on my own back in 2004 when I first started as the research assistant on the cheetah project. I named her after a college friend of mine who had loved Africa and died in a car crash my junior year. So I was immensely pleased to see her again looking so fine and healthy. I found her on a kill near Zebra kopjes, and in 2 days I don't think she moved over a kilometre from the original position, although there were lions and hyenas nearby, and she caught another gazelle fawn the next day. Since she didn't move much neither did I and it was really interesting to watch how the presence of other animals near her changed during the day. I watched a male lion stalk and briefly chase a male eland, herds of gazelles and solitary hyenas trek across the valley. The first night I left her as the light was failing and camped right nearby at Zebra kopjes.

Courteny watches wildebeest go by

The next night when I was heading to the kopje I realized that a male lion was also going in that direction. This is the problem with waiting until it is almost dark to find a camping spot, if you need a backup, there aren't very many you can get to before it is full dark. Across the valley in W Barafu were some more kopjes that I could see in the dying light, and I headed towards one of them. I briefly contemplated just stopping the car and camping out in the open, but all of my primate urges cried out for some protection. A small tree, a rock, anything but being in the complete open. The second kopje I headed for was quite small, but was hiding about 6 more lions on its far side. There was only one more kopje I could see in what was left of the dying light, and I crossed my fingers that there were no lions and gunned across the plains towards it. It happened to be cat free, and big enough to provide shelter from the pervasive wind, which was about all I could ask for at that moment.

However this infestation of the best camping spots by lions may be a continuing problem since I need to stay with a cheetah as long as possible per day, meaning I will often be searching for somewhere to camp as it is getting dark. Perhaps I will figure out a way to arrange the car so I never need to get of it, thereby rendering myself lion proof.

By Anne Hilborn, Apr 17 2016 09:03PM

March and April 2014

Cheetah Hotspots

Cheetahs are very mobile and move around a lot in order to follow the gazelle migration. This means it can be a challenge to find them, and the areas where there are lots of them (cheetah hotspots), change from month to month. February and March of this year it was Ndutu. There were cheetahs everywhere. It was both delightful and frustrating to hear reports of tourists seeing twenty eight cheetahs in four days. Delightful because it was great to know there were so many cheetahs around, but frustrating because I was definitely not seeing twenty eight in four days, no matter how hard I tried. I did see quite a few though, including two mothers with small cubs.

High Season at Ndutu

Ndutu in the southern reaches of the Serengeti is a wonderful place. It boasts two lakes, two marshes, woodlands, plains, and spectacular views of the Ngorongoro highlands. If the rains are right during the wet season, it also boasts half a million wildebeest giving birth. This year the rains were right and the wildebeest congregated at and around Ndutu. These attractions make the area very popular with the tourists and new lodges and camps have proliferated in the past years. This means more tourists which means more cars. Because off road driving is allowed in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, cars can approach the wildlife no matter where they are. This becomes a problem when there are lots of cars around a cheetah or when drivers go too close.

While most drivers are respectful and professional around wildlife, it only takes a couple of ones going too close before the situation can get troublesome for a cheetah, especially mothers with small cubs. I saw some terrible and some wonderful behaviour by tour drivers in the high season. Some of the terrible behaviour involved MoneyPenny and her two small cubs.

Money Penny was born in 2011 to Xenia Onatopp, and spent her early life around Seronera. However once she reached independence she moved down to the Ndutu area and has been seen fairly regularly ever since. She attempted to raise a littler in 2013 and failed, but was seen in early February of this year with 3 small cubs. She now only has 2 but has safely guided them through the perils of the Ndutu high season which included scads of lions at Big Marsh, and an unprecedented number of tourist cars. One late afternoon I saw a cluster of tour cars and went over to investigate. It was only an hour or so until sunset and MoneyPenny was looking very skinny and hungry. She got up from under the tree and went in search of prey.

Her cubs followed her, and unfortunately so did the 10 tour cars. Jostling to get into good photographic position, they would drive and park in front of her as she walked so she have to turn to find another way to go. Meanwhile one of her cubs was a bit slow and was having trouble keeping up as all the cars were moving and driving around and occasionally coming between the cub and her mother.

MoneyPenny's cub follows her past the nearby cars

Cars completely encircle MoneyPenny and cubs as they try to rest under a tree

While she managed to guide her cubs through the melee, and I saw her on a kill the next day, not all cubs were so lucky. In early February a tour driver showed a bush where a small cheetah cub was lost or abandoned. I didn’t want to get too close and add to its stress and confusion, so I never actually got a glimpse, but other drivers definitely saw it. It was about 2-3 months old and must have somehow gotten separated from its mother. While it is impossible to say what led to it being separated from its family, the general presence and disturbance of cars in the area couldn’t have helped the situation. The fate of lost cubs is almost always death from predation or starvation.

On the brighter side, I also saw drivers being very respectful and professional around cheetahs. Some of the best behaviour I saw involved another mother at Ndutu. Shameka is about 4 years old and is on her second attempt to raise a litter to independence. She is rather shy and for most of February and March she was often seen at Ndutu with 5 little cubs. Having so many tiny cute cubs meant she was very popular with the tourists and often had cars with her all day. As she isn’t totally comfortable around cars, this meant she spent a lot of time being agitated, especially when they came close. We lost track of her for a couple of weeks and then in mid April I saw her in Hidden Valley, this time with only 2 cubs. She had lost 3 cubs and one of the remaining cubs was limping badly and had a problem with its eyes. When I saw her she was extremely skinny and trying to hunt, despite there not being much prey around.

A very skinny Shameka

There were between 5 and 8 cars gathered as she looked for prey but all of them stayed way back, most at least 100m away, but some were close to half a kilometer away. When she spotted three female Grant’s gazelle coming over the horizon, the space allowed her to hunt undisturbed. Only when she had brought down the prey did the cars approach. Since her cubs were so small, they had been left behind as she started to stalk, and after killing the gazelle, Shameka didn’t start eating, instead she started slowly moving in the direction where the cubs were. As is usual, the drivers had pulled up into a semi circle around her and the gazelle, but as they realized that their cars were between her and her cubs, the drivers started backing up and moving so that she had free access in the direction of the cubs. The cubs were at least a kilometer away and it took her a while to find them lead them back to the kill.

Shameka tries to drag her gazelle

Shameka walks past cars to find her cubs and bring them back to the carcass.

Since one cub was often stumbling this was a slow process, and as it became apparent that she wasn’t bringing them directly to the kill, one the drivers got on the radio and asked all the others to back up so she could approach the kill without having lots of cars around it. And much to my gratified surprise, all of the drivers did so. More than an hour after she left the kill, Shameka brought her cubs to gazelle and they started eating. And eating and resting and eating. By the time I left them 7 hours later, Shameka’s midsection had gone from looking like an hour glass (Belly size 3), to looking like she had swallowed a basketball (Belly size 14). To see drivers who are concerned about the animals they are watching and willing to sacrifice a close up shot so that a hungry cheetah can feed herself and her cubs made me very happy. I am not sure how she lost her other cubs or what happened to make the cub limp and have messed up eyes, but raising cubs is a hard job and we should do everything we can to avoid increasing a mother’s difficulties.

One of Shameka's cubs on the kill. Note the wonky eye.

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